As a Black person who emigrated to the southern U.S. from Canada, I still have a hard time setting aside the Southern stereotypes that worked their way into my childhood home in Montreal. And if I’m to be totally honest, unpacking the nuances of a southern experience don’t come easy when I’m confronted, daily, with reminders of the multiple ways in which this country has, and continues to be, divided. But the biggest challenge is finding ways to describe how the tilt of a cowboy hat, or a held-open door, or an “I appreciate you’ from a stranger, or a slow stroll, or sweat on a glass of tea are all as cliched, as they are as beautiful, and true.
The hardest (and best) part of writing about the South is trying to capture the cultural palimpsest and contradictions that overlay all aspects of Southern life. Race, religion, social class. A mythology of honor and heritage weighed down by prejudice, xenophobia, and revanchism. Racial and class conflicts leavened with individual acts of tolerance and generosity side-by-side with intolerance and avarice. Contrasts of poverty and wealth amid 21st-century progress. It provides a wealth of material for a writer.
The hardest part of writing about the South is interpreting lived experiences that might propagate negative Southern stereotypes. For example, how can I write about my father's homophobia without sending the message that Southerners do not appreciate diversity? I always try to buckle down and investigate how an individual's characteristics are layered by numerous structural and interpersonal experiences so that all readers can know that an individual's character spawns from events that are complex with meanings. Stereotypes are not one size that fits all. Individuals grow into stereotypes through lived experiences.
The thing that drives me crazy about the writing process is that every time you start something new, you have to renew your faith in the process itself. You have to believe in your own bottomless well of creativity, believe in your ability to turn a bad first draft into something good, believe that words will spring seemingly from nowhere and fill the page, believe that what you are doing is worthwhile. I have to overcome imposter syndrome and ignore the loathsome little voice in my head that tells me that any good writing I’ve done previously was a fluke and there’s no point in sitting down and attempting to do it again. That is why trusting in the process is so important. In my view, it's the only way to combat self-doubt, and the only way to actually get anything written.
What drives me crazy about the writing process? Finding the right words to describe a sense of place and evoke emotion--words that don't sound hollow or feel untrue or simply boring.
Having to submit and query without sounding like I’m groveling to get published, then once published having to flog my books like a used-car salesman to rise above water in the Amazon sales ranking.
In a perfect world, I could write novels with a more popular appeal. I know the literary versus commercial argument is offensive to some (I lean more toward the literary side), but as an unemployed ex-con, I'd love to be able to cash in on the crass consumerism and would do so without feeling the least bit guilty. But, that's a different kind of writing than mine. Que sera sera.
In one previous life I'd crank out fifteen column inches on a three-alarm building fire before the eight-thirty a.m. deadline. Later, I learned to synthesize months of molecular biology research in a couple of weeks, and shoot the manuscript off to the scientific journal, hoping to scoop competitors. Then the go-go pharma business: thousands of documents, from tractor trailer bed-size regulatory submissions to one-minute elevator pitches, real patients' lives and real investors' money always on the line. In all these cases, I knew what the story was, and I'd just write it. No problem. But I've never -- not once -- written a piece of fiction that bore any resemblance to my first draft. The story, the actual story, is always a surprise, and it shows up after weeks and months of what can only be described as flailing. Honestly, it's embarrassing.
What I'd change, if I could, is the timeline of that wonderful surprise, the arrival of the true story. I'd make it show up on, say, the third rewrite. Right as the first cup of coffee kicks in. How great would that be?
Read, read; write, write. Keep a journal—but limit the amount of solipsistic self-examination and focus on the world around you, what crosses your synapses via your five senses and the impressions formed there. Step into the shoes of other persons, especially those who irritate or repel you, and try to formulate what the person is seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking, and what experiences led them here. Eavesdrop on open conversations in public places—especially cell phone discussions on the machine next to you at the gym. These are great sources for dialogue.
I would tell them to not fear rejection. Embrace it. I submitted for several years before getting my first acceptance. I still get routinely rejected. At first it's hard because it feels personal, but after a few rejections, it doesn't hurt as badly. It's something we all go through.
I thought I was a writer, and then I gave it up, for a long time. I became a field biologist, which requires a different kind of writing. But when I lost the ability to do that work, after having children, I started writing poetry again. It came in a great rush, using all the experiences and feelings I’d had over the years when I wasn’t writing poems. If you think you have lost something, you haven’t. Sometimes you need to go live a little, and come back when you have something to say again.
I make pilgrimages to the homes of famous writers whenever I can. When I first moved to Asheville, North Carolina I visited the residence of Thomas Wolfe, which was a boarding house run by his mother. I was glad I’d gone because soon after, the place burned down. You Can’t Go Home Again… When I vacationed in Savannah, I toured Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home. It illuminated my reading of her short stories… One summer’s day I had my picture taken in a field of sunflowers near Red Cloud, Nebraska. It made me feel very close to Willa Cather’s salt-of-the-earth Midwestern characters, with their deep connection to the land… Some years ago, I had the privilege of spending six magical months at the ranch home of J. Frank Dobie near Austin. Call it a pilgrimage-in-residence. His work portrays a classic Texas of cowboys and caballeros, of stone creeks and scrub brush… I am struck by the deep affect geography and landscape has on writers. Regions have unique issues, history, and elements, and it shows up in our prose as more than setting and physical descriptions. My own journey of living between the Appalachians and the Gulf Coast, between the metaphors of mountain snowstorms and hurricane flood, continues to challenge and inspire my work.
In 2018 I published a full collection of poetry, Footfalls (Pocahontas Press, Roanoke, VA) which celebrates the Appalachian regions, people, music, and culture where I grew up. My pilgrimage involved a road trip with my sisters down the Crooked Road, Va.'s heritage music trail, culminating in attending the Galax Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention. Evoking the spirit of bluegrass, the Stanley Brothers, the Carter family, and the ballads of the region inspired my work. Lyrics from such music serve as touchstones in the poetry I wrote.
As my widowed mother moved into her mid-70s and my son moved into his tweens, I chafed at the constraints of a demanding full-time job, longing to do so many things with my family. Soon it would be too late to do them. With my husband’s cheerful cooperation, I offered to take my mother on a trip to England, a place she loved through literature but had never visited. I found a tour guide who specialized in Jane Austen-themed tours and booked a two-week trip through southern England to visit sites where the famous author had lived and that she had immortalized in her novels. Our tour guide, Julian, cracked the whip, moving us through the tea rooms, historic hotels, and gardens at a pace my mother had trouble keeping up with. On Sunday morning, in Steventon, Hampshire, the village where Jane Austen had lived for 26 years, we stood outside the 12th-century church of St. Nicholas, where Jane’s father was the rector. The church was very little changed since the Austens left it in 1801. It was raining and we stood under umbrellas next to the dark, dripping evergreen trees, listening to the congregation inside singing a hymn. Said Mom, “We’ve visited all these churches. When are we going to worship at one?” It had never occurred to me how much she would have enjoyed the service, as well as the chance to get off her feet for an hour. Just then, Julian told us it was time to move on.